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Potential cancer-causing chemicals were still emitted by Denka during its Ida closure, study says

denka plant
Travis Lux
The Environmental Protection Agency will probe two state agencies over their handling of air pollution from the Denka Performance Elastomers plant (pictured) in St. John the Baptist Parish.

Despite being closed in September 2021 due to Hurricane Ida, the controversial Denka plant in St. John Parish still emitted rates of cancer-causing chemicals even when it wasn’t operating, according to an LSU monitoring demonstration test.

The study, conducted by LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health, tracked 10 residents within a half mile of the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace using collected air and urine samples also known as biomonitoring, according to Adrienne Katner who led the project. Katner is an associate professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health.

The demonstration was state funded through the Department of Health.

The 10 residents who participated in the study were recruited by word of mouth and lived within a half mile of the plant. Monitoring plans were disrupted because Hurricane Ida caused widespread destruction to the area and other recruited participants remained evacuated.

Two air samples contained detectable chloroprene. These two air samples were taken near 5th Ward Elementary School, which is three blocks away from the plant.

Katner said that the demonstration happened during the plant’s closure due to monetary and timing constraints, but that timing and the results were still concerning, illustrating that chloroprene was still present even though the lowest emissions on record were released at the plant.

She said that they weren’t expecting to find anything but did. The EPA said that it was only safe to inhale 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of chloroprene in the air or less, on average per year.

Katner said that chlorophene averages near the school were approximately four times higher than the recommended maximum annual average of chloroprene air concentration for long-term exposure.

“That was the concerning part and the fact that Denka said there was no impact, except to its offices during Hurricane Ida,” Katner said. “So that triggered an alarm for me, because if there wasn't any impact, then why are we finding chloroprene? So this must be the status quo level, that is here all the time in this community.”

Chlorophene is likely to be a carcinogen, according to the 2010 Environmental Protection Agency Integrated Risk Information System assessment and has been shown to cause liver and lung cancer in animals. The report also said that the chemical has been manufactured at the plant since 1969, meaning that exposure has occurred for over 50 years in the community.

Near the plant sits 5th Ward Elementary School, which has a 93% minority population and is made up of mostly Black students.

Chloroprene is a byproduct from the creation of neoprene that is produced by the Denka plant. Neoprene, the synthetic rubber is used in wetsuits, seat covers, fishing and rain boots and other commercial and industrial uses.

“Chloroprene continues to be detected offsite by EPA and Denka officials at levels of potential concern, where vulnerable populations congregate or live,” Katner said. “Biomonitoring indicates resident exposure is occurring to likely known and or probable carcinogens associated with plastics production.”

Katner also stated that while the EPA’s chloroprene air limit is a recommendation — not a required regulatory standard —it is important to understand that levels below state and national air quality standards cannot always ensure zero health risks.

These results come after WWNO previously reported that federal officials will open investigations into complaints of racial discrimination against two of Louisiana’s agencies over the handling of air pollution and permits in St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes. The LDEQ is accused of its air pollution control program having the intent or effect of subjecting people to racial discrimination, including their actions related to emissions from the Denka plant.

The majority of residents who live near the plant are Black.

Most collected urine samples also indicated exposure to volatile organic compounds, meaning other potential carcinogens, according to the study.

Edward Trapido, professor and associate dean for Research in the School of Public Health and deputy director for Population Science in the Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center at LSU Health New Orleans, reviewed the report and said that this was not a formal study to define effects of exposure to chloroprene, however it served as a proof-of-demonstration for larger projects.

The demonstration is also a part of a larger project commissioned by the Louisiana Department of Health to review cancer cases in St. John titled “Cancer Risk in St. John Parish,” or CRISP.

Katner said that there is a need for a cumulative risk assessment for all Denka emissions, biomonitoring of children and other vulnerable populations in the area. She also said that there needs to be tracking for non-cancer health outcomes caused by Denka and other facilities’ emissions. She said the school district needs to be made aware of the information in the report and that the health department should establish a school-based health surveillance system.

The report also recommended that more risk assessments should be conducted by the LDH and LDEQ and its effects on the community.

For Katner, she sees clearly what needs to be done going forward. She wants the public health response to be one that is reciprocal and a trust-based supportive relationship with the community.

“They deserve and have the right to know what they're being exposed to,” Katner said.

She also added that industry should be responsible and pay for air monitoring and biomonitoring in the community with industries profiting billions of dollars from the area.

"These industries should be paying for air monitors along the fence line and in vulnerable areas of the community like the elementary school," Katner said. "Monitoring data should be reported in real time online and be accessible to the public. Alerts should be sent to the community via text or e-mail when air concentrations exceed levels of concern."

She also said that there needs to be a streamlined understanding from local primary care providers to the residents about the health effects and abnormalities caused by chloroprene and other emissions.

In a public response released Monday, The LDH said that the department has filed official requests for technical assistance from two federal agencies: the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The department is asking for official assistance in technical analysis of the new LSU data, assessment of the need for additional monitoring and/or data collection, and implementation of additional monitoring and data collection efforts recommended by EPA and ATSDR.

“The call for public health intervention is the main message of this report,” said Donna Williams, professor and director of the Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Program at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health. “When risks to a population are plausible, mitigation and exposure prevention should be implemented.”

Reporter Halle Parker contributed to this report.

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.

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